Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Wiseman's House

About a year ago today, I got in my car from my crummy apartment in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and drove down one of the three or four roads out of town.  My destination was ten minutes to the southwest, a town called Greenland.  I was headed to the house of my new best friend: a man I'll simply call the Wiseman.  2012 was only two weeks old, and it had started rough.  We were resigned to finding a smaller apartment, and it was likely we were going to have to leave the city. In a hospital bed in Massachusetts, my estranged grandmother lay dying.  But for tonight, that didn't matter.  A week earlier, the Wiseman had sent me an email telling me a play I'd written had been accepted for an upcoming variety show.  I was heading to the initial read-through, where he (the director) and two actors were going to bring something I wrote to life. It was dark when I arrived, and the house appeared shapeless from the outside. 

The Wiseman greeted me at the door.  He was all warmth and love, and the house felt the same way.  It probably hadn't been renovated since the 60s, minus a solarium addition off the back.  The decor was equally antique, but it felt organic in a way so few houses did anymore.  Nothing manufactured but the appliances.  He herded me and the actors into the living room, where two black cats were waiting.  One, the larger, climbed into my lap and began purring as I sat and watched the actors do their work.  I liked this house.  I liked these cats.  I felt at once at home and deeply envious of this place.  My home was cramped and falling apart.  New and clean this place was not, but it was a home, not a filing cabinet for those who couldn't afford anything better.  I used to hate cats.  But I liked these cats a lot.  They were as warm and affectionate as the surroundings.  Had I known then that within a year both the house and the cats would be mine, maybe things would have been different.  But that was several months away.

To this day I'm not really sure why the Wiseman liked me so much.  He never seemed to really like anyone.  There was what he thought and what other people thought.  What he thought was all that mattered.  Other people were only in the way.  Yet I understood this mindset well.  We shared a contempt for others, even for each other.  Nonetheless, I trusted him and the trusted me.  Maybe this play was his way of breaking the ice.  I know few people for whom our respective idiosyncrasies can go completely unspoken.  I got him and he got me.  As I learned, his youth was even more turbulent than my own.  While mental illness has been my demon, his was drugs.  We had similarly difficult relationships with our parents and we'd dealt with them in similar ways.  I had much to learn from him, I realized.  So he'd talk and I'd listen.  Or I'd talk and he'd listen.  He was in his mid-70s and I'm in my late 20s, but it was if the intervening years were meaningless.  We went for weekly walks in the woods.  He invited me to the theater.  And always, I learned.  Some of what he said was difficult; a lot of it was bullshit.  But over the next few months we became inseparable. So it was, one day in May, when we were walking in the woods, that he told me how he was going to lose his house.  He was mired deep in money problems.  He was moving to North Carolina, to be with an old flame who'd agreed to take him back.  He'd only be here for a few more months.

My life, when I get down to it, pivots on a dime.  Just shy of five years earlier, I'd met Kari and nothing was ever the same.  The right person appears at the right time.  I'll never forget what happened next.  He paused, dramatically, as only an accomplished actor could.  And then he uttered the words "Matt, how would you like my house?"

The arrangement was simple: he had a lien taken out on the house, and he needed it paid back.  This thing with his old flame was serious.  He had no use for the property anymore.  Rather than default, he had a better idea.  I'd pay off the lien for him, and in exchange I'd keep the house.  It needed some repair.  Okay, a lot of repair.  Heating oil in the winter was a concern.  But a risk worth taking.  Oh, and the cats weren't coming with him.  We'd have to take them in.  All problems that were not insoluble.  In October, we moved in.

Try as I may, I'm not sure I fully understand how this happened.  I'm not prepared to simply call it lucky, or objectify it as the power of kindness.  Not only does that feel like an oversimplification, I don't think it does the dynamic justice.  Without these connections I'd have nothing.  Without taking a risk and putting myself out there, I wouldn't have these connections.  We talk all day long without ever really interacting.  If the Wiseman's House is a lesson, this is it.  For too long I held the world in contempt, like I was too good for it.  I know I'm not the only one.  Was it really that, though?  Or was my contempt a reaction to the alienation I felt, which in turn came from not taking the risk.  A catch-22 of sorts.  A feedback loop.  Once trapped within, almost impossible to escape from.

My world reflects my mind.  The smaller my mind, the smaller it becomes.  The more I grow, the more it grows.  Had I not written that play (to date my first and only attempt), would I be here now as I write these words?  Had I not overcome my contempt, would I have this house?  Perhaps, but I think not.  In our darkest days we close ourselves off to the world to protect ourselves from it.  But nothing lasts forever, even our pain.  Only if we're brave enough to reach out do we escape.

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